In the quest for attention, it seems more and more marketing teams are opting into comedic routines. And, more and more, most of them are only creating their own public relations nightmares. Here are three recent favorites before an explanation that pinpoints why advertisers seem to be missing the mark.
Lawfirms.com Yanks Ad That Jabs At Illegal Immigration
LawFirms.com recently created an ad for a fictitious iPhone “app” ad called iCoyote. The app supposedly packed “all of the features of a real immigrant smuggler into the iPhone. Using GPS, navigate through the patrol packed desert without worrying about that pesky Border Patrol.”
After the ad earned attention from Adam Ostrow at Mashable, the creative that was attributed to "the tasteless sense of humor of two employees that are likely to be fired” was taken down. In its place, Lawfirms.com posted a half-hearted apology.
We regret posting the iCoyote social media experiment. Obviously, this campaign did not hit the mark and we apologize to anyone who was offended by the content. Our mission is to help consumers find legal information, and if necessary, with legal counsel and we're continually striving to find creative ways to introduce people to LawFirms.com.
Toyota Earns Negative Impressions Over Lawsuit
Toyota, with some help from ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, hit "publicity pay dirt" after its faux-stalker campaign landed the company in a lawsuit. Right. It seems someone forgot to tell Amber Duick that she had agreed to be the brunt of the joke as she believed someone really was stalking her.
The prank, covered by Techdirt and the Consumerist, may cost the company as much as $10 million after Duick "had difficulty eating, sleeping and going to work" because she believed a "lunatic" stranger was planning to visit.
According to the coverage, she even received a bill from a hotel that the stranger supposedly "trashed." So far, Toyota is standing firm on its commitment to comedy, saying Duick opted in via a disclaimer.
That excuse is about as funny as hiding evidence from plaintiffs in cases stemming from highway deaths and injuries across the U.S.
Pepsi Pushes Feminist Buttons Over iPhone App
Another "app" accident (and this one is real) comes from the same people who approved the defacing of the Tropicana brand. PepsiCo Inc. promised to help men "score" with two dozen stereotypes of women. The apps give participants pickup lines and a scoreboard. Well, sort of.
Nancy Johnston, columnist for The Baltimore Sun, hit upon some of the "humorous" anecdotes in her column: "Meet a girl who's gone through a bad breakup? Pepsi will help you find an ice cream parlor to take her to, so she feels you really care. Want to convince twin sisters to get a little romantic (and incestuous)? The application thoughtfully supplies groin, hip and back exercises, so you don't pull any muscles during your conquest."
Pepsi has since apologized, but the apology seems to have picked up on the pat "poke fun at yourself" exercise that has crept into the public relations playbook. The apology reads: "Amp tweeted, “Our app tried 2 show the humorous lengths guys go 2 pick up women. We apologize if it’s in bad taste & appreciate your feedback” and then adds its own “pepsifail” hashtag (#).
So What Have Advertisers Forgotten About Funny?
There is no question that "funny" ads attract more attention than straightforward advertising. When done right, consumers forget the pitch and then run off to share the punchline with family and friends. I even have a few studies for students that reveal funny can increase retention and response rates by as much as 300 percent over not-funny advertisements.
So what's going wrong?
Some claim that Americans are losing their sense of humor. There is certainly some truth to the theory, and anyone can make an adequate case (I've even made this case in past case studies). However, the real culprit isn't the public. The real failure seems to be too much cheap shot comedy.
Cheap shot comedy includes all those lovable little quips that occur all the time in entertainment. It's top of mind and off the cuff that is funny in the moment or given a specific situation. Otherwise, it wouldn't be funny at all.
Stand-up comedians and late night talk show hosts rely on an ample supply of cheap shot comedy. And, some of it works in sitcoms too, because the context is expansive and fictional. So why doesn't it work for advertisers?
Since companies are not comedians and advertising is more contextually inclusive than situational, writing funny advertisements seldom includes shooting from the hip. In fact, most funny lines bounced around during a creative brainstorming session are supposed to be burned up and forgotten because they are not funny outside the moment.
Don't misunderstand me. Humor works for advertising. It's also hard work. Hard enough that you'll have to come back tomorrow if you want some tips in how to make it work. I might toss up a few solutions for the three "funny fail" ads above or I might make fun of them instead. I haven't decided.